Samantha Bell: Bringing Empathy and Mindfulness to Medicine 

Living with JA sparked a passion for empathy in patient care. 

Samantha Bell’s childhood experiences with doctors, both good and bad, helped shape her decision to study medicine, as well as her vision for the kind of doctor she wants to be. 

When she was 10, Bell began waking up with stiff, swollen joints, which spurred a slew of medical appointments in search of a diagnosis. Those early doctor’s appointments were confusing and frustrating, says Bell, now 30 and a third-year medical student at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). 

Initially, doctor’s thought Bell’s swelling might be from an infection, so one of her first appointments was with a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. During one appointment, very quickly, and without preparing her, the doctor brought over a needle and syringe and drew fluid from her swollen ankle. “I remember it being really awful and it made me afraid of going to the doctor,” she says. 

Even worse than the pain from the syringe, Bell says, was the fact that the doctor made her feel invisible. She says he would completely ignore her and talk to her parents as if she weren’t in the room. 

Fortunately, Bell’s interaction with a pediatric rheumatologist who diagnosed her JIA changed her mind about doctors. “She looked at me, and spoke directly to me, and really asked me about and listened to my experience. I lit up and thought, some doctors do listen,” says Bell. “Even at 10, the difference between the doctors was very evident. I continue to think of that today as I pursue a career as a physician.” 

Bell recounted some of this story in an essay that helped her win a 2017-2018 Winterhoff Arthritis Scholarship, provided by the Arthritis Foundation, which partially funds her medical studies. However, her path to becoming a doctor wasn’t always as clear as it is now. 

Goal Changes and Epiphanies 

Bell excelled in science in high school and had a voracious curiosity about medicine and arthritis. She began college at the University of California, Berkley as a pre-med microbiology major. But flare-ups caused by stress from the demanding program made her second guess her decision to pursue medicine. So, she switched her major to public health and earned a master’s degree in maternal and child health instead. 

For the next several years, Bell worked as a staff epidemiologist at the county health department. There, she learned how much a child’s environment, particularly factors like poverty and a lack of education, affects his or her health. Still, though her work was important and interesting, it wasn’t enough for Bell, who spent her days alone analyzing data. She craved a job that would allow her to interact with children like the ones she studied, so she applied to medical school. After residency, she hopes to specialize in pediatric rheumatology. 

Mindfulness for Better Living 

Medical school is stressful, as she expected, and Bell flares more than she did when she was working a 9-to-5 job. 

“Trying to stay as active as possible is one of the most important things for me,” she says, noting regular exercise helps control her stress, one of her biggest arthritis triggers, and maintain a healthy weight. 

Bell likes classes based around a ballet barre, which relax her mind with their meditative aspects while giving her body a low-impact workout. She also cultivates mindfulness by “getting out in nature as much as possible,” hiking trails around the San Francisco Bay Area. 

As part of a UCSF research project, Bell is studying mindfulness and its usefulness in helping promote resiliency. “Many [of those in the study] have experienced adverse childhood experiences, which are associated with many negative health outcomes; however, some children demonstrate resilience, the ability to adapt well in the face of hardship,” she says. 

Mindfulness practices, she notes, are one way to build resiliency and allow for greater flexibility in responding to stressors. She plans to incorporate this knowledge into her medical practice, so she can provide patients with more comprehensive treatment plans. 

Above all, Bell is committed to following in the footsteps of her childhood pediatric rheumatologist, and use her experiences as a patient to forge strong, empathetic relationships with her young patients.